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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

Nothing to see here

Grand National winner I Am Maximus jumping the second last fence on SaturdayGrand National winner I Am Maximus jumping the second last fence on Saturday
© Photo Healy Racing

Not a single faller in the Grand National has to be seen as a major triumph for those involved in tweaking with the great race to make it palatable for a modern audience.

It is now little more than a distant relation to the race I was weaned on, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Grand National has always been the primary shop window for the sport and nowadays that requires a sanitised version where dead horses are simply unacceptable.

The macabre spectacle of pile ups and stricken horses and jockeys is now confined to history and I’m inclined to think horse racing will be the better for it.

Threats to the Grand National and jump racing in general have been real and persistent for some time and this new version of the flagship race will go a long way to nullifying them. The old phrase ‘nothing to see here’ now rings true and this could represent a new dawn for the sport. No more need to hide behind dubious half-truths when it comes to animal welfare. This race is now fundamentally safe.

This new version of the Grand National is possibly now one of the safest jump races in the calendar. Horses racing slowly over small, forgiving obstacles, followed by a two furlong dash to the line.

Many will rue the fact that it no longer produces the drama and spectacle of old, but that is the whole point. Racing needs to move with the times and cannot remain fixed in a nostalgic utopia that only really served an elite minority.

The sport has become increasingly niche over recent decades and outside of the flagship days the audience is ageing and dwindling. It saddens me to see how other sports have successfully managed to reinvent themselves for the modern age and have flourished while, for the most part, horse racing has remained stuck in its groundhog day of tradition and entitlement.

I suppose the chief problem stems from the fact that horse racing at some point morphed from a sport into an industry and ended up with far too many powerful stakeholders adverse to change, all wanting to protect their own lucrative patches.

History will ultimately be the judge as to the success or failure of this strategy to sanitise the Grand National, but there is certainly potential to build on this solid new foundation and start to grow the sport’s fan base once again.

Aside from the Grand National, the action was coming thick and fast from all quarters over the last week.

The week started with a fiasco of a false start on the all weather at Wolverhampton where an eleven runner affair turned into a match race. Nine of the intended competitors crossed the winning line before pulling up after the false start, which deemed them ineligible to run in a restarted contest.

Those fortunate enough to back the 25/1 winner of the completed two horse race will have undergone a steep learning curve with regard to Tattersalls Rule 4. Their winning returns were subject to a mammoth deduction of 85 cent in every euro, which turned their 25/1 shot into a mere 7/2 winner.

Monday also saw Fergal O’Brien and Paddy Brennan fall foul of the Wincanton stewards when their hurdling debutant was adjudged to have been “schooled and conditioned on the racecourse,” in other words it had not tried to win the maiden contest. The high-profile trainer and jockey were slapped with severe sanctions by the stewards - £4,000 fine and 18 day suspension respectively - and the horse Northern Air, which finished second, has been banned from running for 40 days.

It is rare for such high profile individuals to get singled out for stopping horses in either Ireland or Britain, even more so when the horse is making its debut in a new discipline.

That is not to say that the majority of trainers and jockeys don’t engage in similar behaviour on occasions, particularly when it comes to preparing handicappers. This is the only plausible explanation for the dramatic improvements we witness in certain horses, but the vast majority of these offenders are never reprimanded. The system actually rewards this practice with the winners of many of the biggest races each season having questionable form in the run up to their victories.

If retrospective sanctions, which were used against Ronan McNally, were applied more frequently it would help clean up this aspect of the game which only benefits individuals rather than the sport as a whole.

It was interesting to read last week that the Horse Racing Ireland owned Leopardstown Racecourse has dipped its toe into jockey sponsorship. We are well used to seeing betting companies associating their brands with both jockeys and trainers, but this is the first occasion I have seen an Irish racecourse doing something similar.

What is certainly curious about the Leopardstown link-up is that, rather than opting for one of the top names in the sport, which is the norm, they have chosen to partner with an Apprentice jockey, Siobhan Rutledge. Siobhan has been doing well in recent seasons, mainly on the all weather at Dundalk, where she is a regular visitor to the winners’ enclosure, but she has yet to break her duck at Leopardstown.

While there is bound to be some pressure on her to rectify that statistic of 0-73 rides at the Dublin track to cement the relationship with her new benefactors, I doubt she will do anything of the magnitude of messrs Geraghty and McCoy at Aintree to embarrass her sponsors.

Finally, it appears Irish racecourses may have inadvertently stumbled upon a solution to the threat of waterlogged tracks. The sport has been plagued by wet weather over recent months which has resulted in a spate of cancelled fixtures, but recent evidence would suggest that there is a simple remedy. All that a racecourse needs to do is deem the fixture a ‘Student Day’ and regardless of how much rain falls the meeting will still manage to go ahead.